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Tens of Thousands of Health Apps — Which One Is Right for You?

Two scientists reveal what key features make for true behavior change


(This article was written as a part of the The Op-Ed Project.)

If you’re thinking about using a software application or a wearable device to help you meet your 2016 health and fitness goals, it’s important to realize that the secret of your success won’t be the technology — but how you use it.

As scientists who specialize in mobile and wireless approaches (including apps and wearables) to health behavior change, we know it can be daunting to figure out “the one” app or device that will help make your good intentions stick. Although the science of what works with tech and health is still brand new, there’s a lot that we already know from the broader science on health behavior change that can help you to identify the app or device most likely to work for you.

It turns out that just a few key features can make the difference between what is helpful and what is arm candy. These features provide research-proven techniques for health behavior change:

Self-monitoring. Most apps and devices provide you with the ability to track your behavior, whether it’s number of steps, minutes of physical activity, or food and drinks consumed. Although it can be a hassle to track your behavior on a regular basis — especially when it comes to logging your food intake — it is a great way to understand your habits, identify any places for improvement, and keep track of your progress as you work toward your goals.

Just a few key features can make the difference between what is helpful and what is arm candy.

Goal-setting. Look for apps and devices that make goal-setting easy — but that also allow you to have some choice within those goals. You’re more likely to follow through with a goal that you’ve created or chosen. Good tech not only allows you to set goals but also helps you to customize, and then when you’re ready, taking your goals to the next level.

Connecting with others. One of the biggest perks of using technology to pursue health behavior goals is that it can connect you with others — friends, family, even total strangers — who are pursuing similar goals to yours. With friendly competitions, weekly challenges and message boards, you can find motivation, support, and helpful feedback from others just like you, 24/7, which serves to keep you going when the going gets tough.

Even once you’ve found the perfect product, it’s important to realize some limitations of your tech. Your apps and devices don’t meet you for a run in the early morning dark. They certainly cannot change your home or work environment for the better. And you cannot eat an app for lunch.

But they can help you to understand your daily patterns and see where you are making progress (or not), and identify new goals and challenges to take your health and fitness to even greater heights. And when you have an off day — or week — of eating, or the number on the scale refuses to budge, don’t be hard on yourself, because any time of year is a great time to start living healthier.

Melanie Hingle
By Melanie Hingle
Melanie Hingle is a nutrition scientist, public health researcher and registered dietitian at the University of Arizona Department of Nutritional Sciences and a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. 
Heather Patrick
Heather Patrick
Heather Patrick is a behavioral scientist and senior director of program development for Envolve PeopleCare.

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